I’ve been to a lot of music festivals, but Wilderness Festival is undoubtedly the fanciest.
Wilderness is a four-day boutique festival held in early August each year set in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds in Oxfordshire, England.
It also has a reputation for being extremely middle-class.
Say goodbye to dodgy food and watered-down beer – at Wilderness, there are lavish Long Table Banquets rustled up by big-name foodies like Yotam Ottolenghi and Deliciously Ella; a champagne garden sponsored by Verve Cliquot with waiters dressed in Great Gatsby-inspired outfits; and ex-Prime Minister David Cameron has been spotted multiple years running.
I don’t always love the elitism of middle-class events, yet somehow I’ve now been to Wilderness Festival three times: once as a first-time visitor, once as a member of a hen party, and once as a speaker (!).
At Wilderness Festival 2017, I was asked to speak about my travels to an audience of forty people sat around a campfire beside a boating lake. It was the most ridiculously picturesque setting – and it also made me re-think my initial opinions about this ‘posh’ festival.
Because middle-class or not, Wilderness Festival isn’t just about the music. Now in its ninth year, the Wilderness 2019 lineup includes sets from Robyn, Bombay Bicycle Club and Groove Armada – but the organisers advertise it as an ‘alternative’ festival and put a strong focus on experiences, too.
Over the course of the weekend you can attend wood carving, foraging and toxic masculinity workshops, lake swimming, arts and crafts, axe throwing, ecstatic dancing, life drawing, paddleboarding, stimulating talks from prominent authors, yoga and meditation, and an unbelievable amount of gourmet food.
So if you’re looking for a music festival that’s family friendly, keen on colourful costumes, and focuses more on delicious food, alternative entertainment and thought-provoking talks than getting wasted?
Wilderness ticks all the boxes.
What to expect from Wilderness Festival: a review
After three years at Wilderness, I feel pretty qualified in reviewing this fancy festival. The following is a list of my favourite aspects of Wilderness: what you should see, where you should go and what you might have forgotten about.
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1. The setting of Wilderness Festival is undeniably idyllic.
Wilderness is held at the Cornbury Park estate in Oxford, south England. That’s 5,000 acres which play host to a few different campsites, a lake, forests and woodland, all surrounded by rolling fields – not to mention a hidden valley where the late-night revellers dance their troubles away.
2. You can take a dip in the lake.
To reach the festival from the campsites, you have to walk past Lake Majestic – and that’s usually enough to convince you to jump in. The water’s pretty chilly but it serves as a much-needed refresher during the summer heat!
The lake is also the prime spot for water-based activities: you can go out in a rowboat, take a yoga class on paddleboards or chill out in the wood-fired hot tubs which sit on the edge of the lake’s waters.
3. Dressing up isn’t mandatory, but costumes are a big deal.
There’s a big focus on fancy dress at Wilderness Festival. You’ll spot groups in the same outfits, people carrying inflatables bigger than themselves, and at least one hen party dressed up as superheroes.
Each night of Wilderness Festival has a designated costume theme – this year the themes are ‘What Comes Naturally’ on Friday, ‘Hue Are You?’ on Saturday and ‘The Great Big Hats Off’ on Sunday (and for those worried about the possible cultural appropriation of Sunday’s theme, Wilderness have politely asked guests to refrain from wearing Native American headdresses over the course of the weekend.)
4. There’s plenty of places to buy yourself some sequins.
If you’ve forgotten to bring enough glitter, feathers, fur, sequins, sparkly spandex or generally shiny materials, never fear: there are dozens of stalls and shops selling every conceivable addition to an outfit.
Moreover, each year there seems to be a different festival trend – my favourite was the year of clip-on animal tails.
5. Keep an eye out for a giant snail on a leash.
The troupes of performers and roaming art installations are one of my favourite aspects of Wilderness Festival. You never know when a giant snail will be ceremoniously led past you, or when a group of Bearded Ladies will appear from behind a tree and start dancing maniacally.
And let’s not even get started on the annual tradition of streakers running through the Sunday cricket match.
6. Get involved in some immersive performances.
There are slightly more official performances throughout the weekend: choose from choirs, swing dancers, comedians, ballet, Letters Live, dance-offs, hip-hop karaoke, and dozens of small theatre events.
My first year I arrived at a meeting point close to the festival’s entrance and was led by the hand around the far end of the lake in an immersive theatre performance, which culminated in a woman standing mournfully in the lake for a very long time. Bizarre but fascinating, nonetheless!
7. Try carving wooden spoons in the Greencrafts Village.
There’s an entire area dedicated to hands-on crafts workshops – and it’s totally green-friendly. Instead of using mains electricity or generators, the Greencrafts Village use solar power, traditional tools and work with recycled and sustainable materials.
Try your hand at wood whittling, basket weaving, spoon carving, felting, silversmithing or channel your ancient metal-working skills at the Iron Age forge!
8. Indulge yourself at the Sanctuary.
How many other music festivals let you soak away the day in hot tubs beside the lake? And if you really push the boat out there’s a bottle of champagne with your name on it, too.
Wilderness has a long list of indulgent activities, which mainly take place at The Sanctuary and the Lakeside Spa. Choose from massages, aromatherapy treatments, facials, tarot readings and medicine walks.
There’s also someone from Neil’s Yard wandering the site, ready to spray your hands with citrus-scented sanitiser!
9. How about a spot of early-morning outdoor yoga?
If you can rouse yourself from your tent-based slumber in the mornings, Wilderness has a lot to offer its early risers.
Areas like The Studio and Mindful Space hold sessions of yoga, pilates, meditation, sound baths, essential oil workshops, dance classes and vocal practices dotted all over the festival site – and some sessions are so well hidden that you might accidentally come across them underneath the trees.
10. The street food at Wilderness Festival is INSANE.
Rumour has it that Wilderness are positing themselves as a food-focused festival, and you can see why: the entire site is filled to the brim with over a hundred street food vendors.
You can find all the expected festival classics – crepes, bacon sandwiches, deep vats of paella, decadent burgers – but there’s also gourmet street food like I’ve never seen before, ranging from sushi burrito wraps, Buddha bowls and an Italian pasta stand to churros, truffle chips, acai bowls, and vegan curries.
Even in the camp sites you’ll find food vendors serving up fancy coffee, artisanal fry-ups and cheese toasties.
My personal foodie recommendations include:
– Pad Thai from BangWok
– luxe Mac & Cheese from Anna Mae’s van
– bao with pork belly & hoisin sauce
– late night Marmite crumpets from ‘Strumpets with Crumpets’ (these were also the cheapest food I found at Wilderness – a steal at £2.50 for two!)
11. Wilderness isn’t lacking in fancy drinks either.
Although I wasn’t too happy about the prices of some drinks, the festival undoubtedly pushes the boat out when it comes to alcohol.
Take your pick from beverages at a Bloody Mary caravan, a Jose Cuervo tequila bar, a Rioja tent, a Sipsmith gin palace, and a double-decker Pimms bus, or try your hand at cocktail-making masterclasses run by whisky distillers.
12. Listen to talks, debates, comedy and poetry at The Forum.
You could easily spend all day in The Forum, a large bell tent with literary-inspired paper decorations hanging from the roof. There’s a huge blackboard outside revealing each day’s schedule of talks, ranging from political and academic to LGBTQ and narcotics.
There are some high-profile speakers too – 2019 guests include Rose McGowan, Jack Monroe, Dermot O’Leary, Adam Kay and Scarlett Curtis.
At night, this venue focuses on comedy, poetry and spoken word: in 2017, we spent a rainy evening settled into comfy sofas with mugs of hot chocolate and watched a swathe of stand-up performances – perfection! I wish there were more venues like this at other festivals.
13. Learn from literary folks at the Books Tent.
Nearby to the Forum is the Books Tent, which comprises an entire bookshop (and elicited strong memories of the Hay on Wye book festival!)
There are dozens of poetry readings, debates and talks hosted by leading writers and publishers and writing masterclasses led by inspirational authors, as well as book signings afterwards.
The blackboard outside the tent gives the most up-to-date schedule.
14. Dance all day to the Wilderness Festival lineup.
Despite all the other attractions on offer, music is still a huge part of Wilderness. It’s easy to discover a whole range of other styles of music around the festival at the following stages and areas:
The Clubhouse: a tented space by the playing field.
The Hustle: vinyl in the day time, disco at night.
The Highground: the dance space.
The Atrium: the collaborative stage right in the middle of the site which hosts performances from Letters Live, the Wilderness Choir, Hip Hop Karaoke and the Dance Off.
A crowd of people at the Atrium stage at Wilderness Festival
The Troubadour: folk music and artist collectives.
The Carousel: self-explanatory, and my favourite stage out of every festival I’ve been to!
The Level: music from around the globe.
The Valley: a hidden ravine in the forest – the perfect place for late-night raves.
The Main Stage: where the biggest acts perform – as big and spacious as you’d expect!
15. Appreciate the tiny details which make Wilderness Festival unique.
It’s the attention to detail which really elevates Wilderness above other festivals. Everywhere you look, you’ll see tiny hearts painted on stages, dreamcatchers hung in the trees, and hand-made decorations in the rafters of tents.
It creates a really lovely atmosphere which makes people want to just sit around and strike up conversation with the strangers near them – like this guy dressed as a fox!
A few of my top tips for Wilderness Festival
Like any music festival, there are a few unforeseen circumstances which can trip you up. Here are some of my top tips for Wilderness:
16. Combat the high prices by bringing some alcohol with you.
Call me naive, but I was shocked by some of the drink prices. A small can of lager cost me £5 and I didn’t want to buy more booze after that – so I headed back to our campsite and our small stash of alcohol.
Like most UK festivals, Wilderness has a limited quota on bringing in beer, wine and cigarettes, and no spirits are allowed. The stipulations are as follows:
12 cans of beer, lager, cider or pre-mixed drinks OR 2 bottles of wine (decanted into plastic bottles) per person OR a combination of the two i.e. 6 cans and 1 bottle.
FYI there’s also a strict site-wide ban on glass. Make sure you decant bottles of wine into plastic and only bring cans of beer!
17. Share the cost of the printed Wilderness programme (£10).
The printed festival program includes enough information to constitute a guide book – but it’s only available once you reach the festival site, and unfortunately it’s not included in your ticket price either.
These babies cost £10, and they’re the only place you can fully read up on what’s scheduled, where and when. Buy one for your group and share accordingly (or make friends with a stranger and ask to look through theirs!).
18. Book the Experiences before you arrive at Wilderness.
Wilderness Festival has plenty of exclusive activities which they call ‘Experiences’. There are three categories – wellbeing, outdoor and dining – and include everything from massages, yoga raves and sound baths to hat-making workshops, foraging for aromatic plants and Long Table Banquets.
These experiences cost extra and it’s advisable to book them ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
19. Head into The Valley early to avoid the queues!
Most of the music in Wilderness’s main arena shuts off at around 11pm – which means there’s a hefty queue to get into The Valley, a wooded ravine which hosts DJs..
I never, ever thought I’d call myself a runner.
Even when I began to suffer increasingly with anxiety, I still couldn’t see the benefit of exercise on my mental health.
I love long-distance walking, but I guess my relationship with real exercise has always been iffy. I hated PE at school; never found a team sport I particularly enjoyed; I’m perpetually terrified of cycling on London’s roads; and although I eventually discovered yoga, the benefits of my practice never quite resonated in the way I hoped it would.
When I lived in Hackney, my flatmate would get home from work then head for the yoga studio a three minute walk away – and more often than not, I’d allow myself to be dragged there too. But if she wasn’t going, it was absurdly easy for me to find an excuse.
“You’ve just washed your hair – it’ll get sweaty!” I’d think. Or, “you’ve just got into a good groove with your work – if you leave now you’ll lose momentum!”
But in the back of my mind, there was always a little voice nudging that I really should be doing some kind of physical activity to keep my fitness levels higher than, say, walking up and down the stairs.
I downloaded the Couch to 5k app – but I didn’t trust it
There was a park literally outside the door to our flat in Hackney, so it made sense that I should attempt to run around it. After a little bit of research, I found Couch to 5k, which is a free app set up by the NHS. It promises to take you from the sofa to a 5km-worthy runner in just nine weeks, if you do three half hour sessions a week – what’s not to love about that idea?!
For a few weeks I tried to follow the Couch to 5k program religiously. I shuffle-jogged when the disembodied voice of Jo Whiley told me to, and gratefully stopped when she said I could (NB: the first few weeks of the app is based on interval training: you’re tasked with eight repeats of 60 second runs with 90 second walking breaks, which gradually increase to 3 minute runs with 90 second walking breaks and so on).
But something wasn’t clicking. I could just about manage the runs, but I wasn’t enjoying them. Worse, I started to look for ways to avoid the sessions – and because of my travel schedule, something always stopped my progress around week 5 (which is also when the run lengths increase significantly each session. Coincidence..??)
When I moved back to my family home to care for my terminally ill dad, I started the app again. This time, allowing myself the time to run was like clinging to a life raft: leaving the house for half an hour each morning was one of the few stable moments in that surreal carer journey which I could count on. The immediate physical reactions of my body took precedence over the reality my mind was always focused on.
So you’d be excused for thinking that I would’ve kept on running, right?
Yet when Dad died, all thought of exercise went out of the window.
While I grieved, I couldn’t find the confidence to run
There are so many things people don’t tell you about grief (which I’ve written about at length here). There’s the complete mental and physical exhaustion, for a start, as well as the sudden emotion which comes on suddenly from nowhere – but grief can also have a huge effect on your sense of self-confidence.
I’d already been developing anxieties about my physical safety before my dad’s death, and in the aftermath they got even worse. The need to cry struck me at so many points throughout the day that my house was the only place I felt calm: when I was there, nobody could see me fall apart. If I was outside when the emotion swelled, though – on a bus, in the street, at a pub, in a shop – I’d have a panic attack.
As a result, during much of 2018 I’d spend days at a time sobbing in bed. This eventually prompted friends to ask, “Have you tried going for a run? It’s helped before!”
What I found extremely difficult to explain was this: I already felt so battered and bruised by grief that the mere thought of being overwhelmed or unable to complete a run was too much of a defeat before I’d even started. Yes, running had occasionally made me feel better before, and I knew they meant well – but I resented the implication that I’d somehow made ‘going for a run’ into a fix-all solution.
“It’s not as simple as that!!” I wanted to scream. How could it be, when hearing the suggestion of running made my mind spiral?
First, the sheer process of preparing to run was exhausting: the idea of crawling out of bed, searching for running clothes, finding my trainers, hiding my key somewhere on my body, stepping outside and entering a world I simply didn’t trust.
Next, what utterly terrified me was having to brave the unknown of that realm outside my front door. What if I tripped over in the first minute of jogging? What if I skinned my knee? What if someone saw me and laughed? What if I got a stitch and had to stop and felt like a failure because I couldn’t finish the session? What if I got red in the face and really sweaty and my knee hurt and I suddenly panicked that I was already getting arthritis at age thirty?
No. Much easier to stay inside my house where nothing could hurt me. Where I could cry in peace. Where I had at least some semblance of control.
Surprise! I officially have Generalised Anxiety Disorder!
For anyone who suffers with anxiety, the above thought process probably sounds familiar. But surprisingly enough, although I knew I was anxious a lot of the time it didn’t register that these thoughts weren’t really me.
These anxious thoughts are just thoughts. Thinking them won’t make them happen. They aren’t the truth.
Thankfully, I started seeing a CBT therapist earlier this year and our sessions have been incredibly helpful. She’s explained to me that after a traumatic experience like losing a parent, my ‘fight or flight’ response is dialled all the way up, so I’m constantly perceiving everyday situations as harmful and destructive. After listing out every possible anxiety I encounter on a regular basis, we’ve been able to group my anxieties into more distinct categories – and in turn, that’s allowing me to distance myself from them and lessen their impact on me somewhat.
Working positively on my mental health re-awoke my body to the idea of improving its physical health. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I began my CBT sessions I also started the Couch to 5k app again.
And because I’m more in tune with these wilful changes in mentality at the moment, something in the app really struck me. In one of the Week 2 runs, the narrator (a choice of five voices; I always choose Jo Whiley) says,
“It’s all about changing your mindset. Instead of, ‘I hate running, I hate running,’ just try repeating, ‘I love running, I love running.’ Doing this changed everything for me.”
And as I dutifully repeated that phrase over and over, something inside me just switched. I began to enjoy myself. Not just the post-run endorphins, and not just at moments throughout the run. No – I was actually looking forward to getting outside!!
I found myself getting into a Real Running Routine
For the last two months I’ve gone for a run every few days. Whereas before I’d been looking for excuses to not go outside, now I watch the clock as my favoured running time approaches. I’ve bought proper trainers (the proviso being that every time I consider avoiding a run, I’ll remember how much I spent and be guilt-tripped into it!). I’ve discovered that my pacing works best if I listen to a Punk playlist on Spotify. I even track my route on Strava.
And all this culminated on a hot day in south London, when I found myself running for twenty minutes straight – just under 3km without stopping. The best part? It didn’t even feel particularly difficult!
I’d reached the end of Week 5 in the app, and I was buzzing. But there was a problem. I was about to spend two weeks in Trento, Italy, at the Traverse blogging conference – where there’d no doubt be late nights, hungover mornings, a busy schedule and presumably no time at all to run.
I immediately threw my hands up in resignation – until a friend said, completely reasonably, “Why can’t you just run in Italy?”
It was like a lightbulb had gone off in my head.
Why on earth COULDN’T I run in Italy?!
Nervously, I typed in, ‘Where to run in Trento, Italy’ into Google. I could feel the anxious thought processes revving up in my head, matching time as the page loaded.
“It’ll be way too hot to run there – the forecast says 30’C! You usually run in the early evenings and that won’t happen, there’ll be parties to go to. Besides, I bet there’s nowhere good to run, no parks or anything – and even if there are, the only good places might be miles away from your Airbnb. And what if it’s not safe? What if someone jumps you?”
The search page loaded. Bam. Right in the middle of Trento, Google maps showed me a cycle path beside a river. It looked stunning.
Better than that. It looked PERFECT.
My first ever international run
The night before I flew to Italy, still nervous about whether or not I’d manage any runs during the fortnight, I did a hasty session on the pavements surrounding my house (Week 6, session 1, which meant runs of 5 mins, 8 mins, and 5 mins with gaps in between). It was a little daunting but I managed it – and I knew that meant two runs of 10 minutes apiece in Italy.
Once I arrived in Trento, it was immediately apparent that factoring in a run would be hard. But on my third night I barely drank any alcohol, and woke the next morning at 8am with a clear head and that newly-familiar sensation fizzing in my blood. I WANTED TO RUN.
Headphones into my ears, keys tucked inside my bra, sunglasses on my face (who knew if they’d fall off but it was way too sunny outside not to wear them), I skipped down the three flights of stairs and into the streets of Trento.
It was already 25’C at the river, and I wasn’t sure if running for two sets of 10 minutes (Week 6, session 2) in this heat was going to work – but I’d apparently made up my mind, because when Jo Whiley’s voice told me to run, I JUST BLOODY RAN.
And it was incredible.
From the moment my feet hit the tarmac I felt empowered. I felt delirious. I couldn’t believe I was running in northern Italy, surrounded by the most stunning views – and by the time the second set of ten minutes started, I was wildly snapping selfies and videos of myself and the river, the mountains, and the trees.
I wouldn’t have wiped that grin off my face if you’d paid me.
Has running cured my anxiety?
I keep reminding myself that there probably isn’t a magic fix for my anxiety. Instead, I have to learn techniques to keep it in check. Thankfully, running is doing wonders for pulling me back into the real world and being slightly less afraid of all the things which might (yet probably won’t) happen. Other lovely offsets include:
Feeling less self conscious. If people see me sweaty and red in the face, so goddamn what?!
Feeling motivated. Running motivates me to get out of the house, and I haven’t spent three days sobbing in bed for months.
Being able to see such a clear progression in my endurance levels. Realising that I’m actually upping my ability to run further is EXTRAORDINARY!
Actually wanting to go for a run. I never thought it would happen, but after sitting at a desk all day my legs are urging me to head for the park.
Case in point: the afternoon I flew back from Italy (after nine days without running) I pulled on my trainers, began jogging slowly, and within the first few minutes I felt the sluggishness begin to fall away. It wasn’t the easiest of runs, but I could sense how it was affecting my body and my mind.
It’s surreal to say this – but I actually think I love running.
Ecuador was the first place I went backpacking in South America.
As I flew into Quito airport with no return ticket, I felt nervously excited about what the country held in store for me – but luckily, Ecuador more than fulfilled my expectations.
Over the course of six months I lived and worked in the springtime city of Cuenca, partied in Montañita, boarded boats in the Galapagos and ventured deep into the Amazon jungle. I slept in palm-thatch huts on the beach, bathed in sacred volcanic water, and caught my breath in a mountain village high up in the Andes.
Ecuador was the perfect country to begin my eighteen months of backpacking adventures around South America, and I’d recommend it without hesitation to anyone else. So here’s a rundown of the best places to visit in Ecuador – a collection of all my experiences during five months of travelling this underrated country.
Things to know about backpacking Ecuador
What’s the weather in Ecuador like?
As Ecuador is on the equator the temperature is similar all year round, but Ecuador is still somewhat seasonal: there’s a dry season from June to November, before moving into a rainy and humid season from December through to May.
Because part of the country is in the northern hemisphere and part is in the southern, this also means a pretty strong variation in climate. Ecuador is said to have four micro-climates:
– La Costa: the coastline is hot, humid and tropical, so expect sunbathing opportunities aplenty in Montañita, Salinas and Canoa.
– La Sierra: in the centre of the country is the cooler, high-altitude area of the Andes mountains. Expect warm days and chilly nights in cities like Quito, Loja, Cuenca and Baños.
– El Oriente: the Amazon rainforest and the low-lying land surrounding it has hot humid temperatures and regular (if light) rainfall in places like Tena, Misahualli and Puno.
– Galapagos Islands: You’d expect humidity, but the vast stretches of Pacific Ocean make the Galapagos Islands pleasantly cool! There’s very little rainfall and almost constant temperatures of 65-90’F/18-32’C.
When’s the best time of year to go backpacking in Ecuador?
Surprisingly enough, you might prefer to visit Ecuador’s beaches and coastline during the rainy season! Outside of this Dec-May period the weather can be muggy and overcast – but the rainy season actually means a short rainfall each afternoon, allowing for plenty of sunbathing.
Peak season for the Galapagos Islands is tied to school holidays: June through to September, and December/January will be heaving with crowds. Calmer seas and warmer temperatures are from December to May.
What’s traditional food in Ecuador like?
An introduction to Ecuadorian cuisine often starts with a scare tactic, as this is the country famed for serving up roasted guinea pig (known here as cuy). But there’s actually plenty of delicious food in Ecuador, with a particular focus on carb-rich dishes with potatoes, lentils and pasta, meat dishes like pork and chicken, and lots of fish on the coast – you just need to know what to ask for!
Cuy – fried or roasted guinea pig is considered a delicacy in Ecuador, and you’ll often see the creatures skewered over barbeques at markets. A whole cuy costs about $20 but you’re better off trying a quarter first, as it’s an acquired taste…! From my experience, there’s not much meat on a guinea pig, it tastes quite greasy and there’s a lot of little bones. Not my favourite Ecuadorian food, for sure.
Llapingachos – these small patties of grated potato, cheese and seasoning are mashed up and lightly fried. They’re an extremely popular street food snack.
Patacones – like most South American countries, Ecuador has a variant of sliced and fried green plantain. Learn to make patacones yourself if possible, as they taste the best when hot from the fryer.
Encebollado – this fish stew is most popular on the coast but is often regarded as Ecuador’s national dish. It’s usually made with tuna, and includes chunks of red cassava (a root veg) and pickled red onion rings, giving it a tangy flavour.
Hornado – slow roasted pork is a big thing in Ecuador, and there’s usually an entire upper floor dedicated to this dish in the market. For a few dollars you get a plate filled with the following: a hunk of pork, a helping of mote (corn kernels which have been boiled and peeled), as well as two or three llapingachos. Delicious!
As long as you keep your wits around you, backpacking Ecuador isn’t particularly dangerous. However there’s a chance you’ll hear occasional reports of armed robbery: when I travelled across the border to Peru at night, we had to park the bus for hours to avoid a rumoured gang which was roaming on the Peruvian side. Quito also has a problem with mugging, particularly in the touristic centre, and during my months of living in Cuenca I had two friends who were robbed at the riverside by a man with a knife, and another guy had his bag stolen while he was asleep on the bus.
My advice? Keep your possessions close, practice common sense, and trust your gut. It’s also worth reconsidering your typical backpacker clothing, as those bright and baggy hippy trousers might mark you out as a gringo with foreign possessions worth mugging.
Yes, absolutely! You should have comprehensive travel insurance when backpacking Ecuador – or anywhere, for that matter. I usually use World Nomads as it’s designed for adventurous travellers.
Can I drink the water in Ecuador?
It’s not a good idea to drink the tap water anywhere in Ecuador – stick to bottled water instead, or make sure you sterilise it first by boiling or using a Steri-Pen.
Do I need to speak Spanish in Ecuador?
When I arrived in Ecuador I had beginner’s level Spanish, and I managed to get around fine – but I was living with a host family who spoke fantastic English and had a group of English friends who were better at Spanish than me, so I didn’t practice nearly enough!
I’d still recommend having some basic Spanish before backpacking Ecuador – it’s just common sense. Moreover, there are plenty of Spanish schools throughout the country for you to brush up your skills.
What kind of transport can I take in Ecuador?
Ecuador has two international airports in Quito and Guayaquil, and it’s a popular country to begin your South American travels from. It’s pretty common for tourists to book internal flights in Ecuador, as the only way to reach the Galapagos Islands is via plane. Flights to the islands will depart from both Quito and Guayaquil but the latter coastal city is closer (and most flights from Quito will stop over in Guayaquil anyway!).
As one of the smallest countries in South America, backpacking Ecuador via bus is easy and you won’t spend full 24 hour stretches on board. There are bus stations in every major city and plenty of smaller towns: usually called ‘Terminal Terrestre’, this is where the long-distance buses will stop.
The general rule for bus fare in Ecuador is $1 per hour, but it’s always worth checking prices at a few different vendors before you buy a ticket.
Bus routes and ticket prices in Ecuador:
Quito to Otavalo: $2.50 for a 2 hour journey. Buses leave from Quito’s ‘Terminal Carcelen’ bus station.
Quito to Guayaquil: $8 for 8 hours.
Quito to Cuenca: $10 for 9.5 hours.
Cuenca to Vilcabamba: 6 hour bus to Loja then switch to a second local bus for 45 mins.
Cuenca to Guayaquil: $8 for 4 hours. Buses depart every hour and the route goes through Cajas National Park so you’ll have some good views.
Cuenca to Montañita: No direct bus route, but it’s possible via Guayaquil and takes about 9 hours.
Cuenca to Baños: $8 for an 8 hour journey. Buses leave three times daily.
Baños to Tena: $7 for 7 hours. Buses depart every few hours from the small bus terminal in the centre of town.
Tena to Misahualli: $1 for a 1 hour journey on a local bus.
Riobamba to Salinas de Guaranda: $1 for a 1.5 hour journey, then catch a local bus for the 45 min ride to Salinas de Guaranda (or hitchhike with the local farmers!)
– Buy your bus tickets at bus stations. Trying to decipher the online booking systems is nearly impossible and besides, you might get turned away with a blank stare unless you do it in person. Also this is the prime time to haggle and question the various company operators.
– Aim for daytime journeys. Although it’s possible to take buses at night to maximise your days of exploring, there are enough cautionary tales about accidents caused by drunk and overtired drivers to warrant a daytime journey –not to mention stories of nighttime muggings and bus hijackings.Plus on a long travel day it’s worth having the scenery to stare out at (unless, like me, you have a strong fear of heights when driving the winding mountain roads!)
– Watch out for pickpockets! Most South America mugging stories I heard seem to all happen in Ecuador, and I also had my own pickpocketing/mugging experience on a bus from Ecuador to Colombia. Put the bulk of your luggage in the hold under the bus but make sure it’s securely closed and don’t include any valuables in there. Keep these in a little pack which you keep on you at all times: don’t put it in the rack above your seat or on the floor beside your feet either.
Hostels in Ecuador are plentiful and their prices are reasonable – so it’s a popular choice for a backpacker. Googling for Ecuador hostels will undoubtedly provide a ton of results, so I’ve included a list of my favourites below.
If you’re looking for something a bit more upmarket, the Ecuador hotel scene is booming too. There’s also much to be said for Airbnb – sign up here and get £25 off your first booking!
A lovely eco-friendly hostel set in two hectares of jungle gardens on the outskirts of Tena. Hammocks, dry toilets, and a delicious breakfast served up by the couple built the hostel. They’ll happily organise Amazon jungle tours here, too.
A friendly little family-run place with a pizza oven downstairs and a balcony overlooking the main square. There’s no heating in the building so all the blankets on our bed were gratefully received!
How do I get in and out of Ecuador?
– Flights: As mentioned above, you can fly into Ecuador at the international airports in either Quito or Guayaquil. I arrived into Ecuador at Quito’s ‘Mariscal Sucre International Airport’ (UIO), one of the continent’s busiest airports, and also used Guayaquil’s ‘José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport’ (GYE) when I flew to the Galapagos – and if you’re planning to sleep at the latter before your own trip to the Galapagos, you should check out this article. Both airports are easy to navigate and open 24 hours with lots of cafes, restaurants, lounges, good wifi and amenities.
– Border crossings: Ecuador shares overland borders with Colombia to the north and Peru to the east and the south. I crossed these borders a number of times, and can say without a doubt that my overnight crossings were more dramatic and difficult than the daytime ones!
Welcome to the tiny Amazon town of Misahualli, Ecuador.
Nestled in the Oriente region in eastern Ecuador, the tiny town of Misahaulli (pronounced miss-a-WHY-eee) sits between two major rivers, the Rio Napo and the Rio Misahualli, amidst a lush green landscape. Although it’s a sleepy place nowadays, Misahualli was once a bustling port for travellers and tourists arriving by boat from Coca – a transit route which eventually dried up after the construction of a new road.
But why was this tiny town so popular? It’s because Misahualli is also right on the edge of the Amazon jungle – otherwise known as the biggest rainforest on the planet.
For backpackers travelling through South America, spending some time exploring the Amazon is usually high on the list. This stunning rainforest stretches across nine countries and while there are dozens of points of entry, the most obvious destinations are Manaus in Brazil, Rurrenabaque in Bolivia and Iquitos in Peru (the world’s largest city which is totally unreachable by road!)
But for budget travellers who are keen to see a quieter, less frenzied and ultimately less touristic side to the Amazon, I’d suggest paying a visit to Misahualli, Ecuador.
The day before arriving in Misahualli, we’d taken a four hour bus ride from Baños (cost: $6) through stunning mountain landscapes to Tena, the province’s capital city. We’d planned to spend a few nights at the Hostal Pakay in Tena while we did our Amazon jungle research, but that evening we were approached by a local guide named Juan who explained his tours to us – and we were immediately sold, agreeing to meet him in Misahualli the following afternoon.
I knew the Amazon was going to be a different style of travel. But it didn’t properly dawn on me until we discovered a huge tarantula scuttling around our dorm room at Hostal Pakay – and had to call for the owner who chased it between the mosquito-netted beds in his underwear, wielding a machete.
Exploring the Amazon is not your everyday travelling experience. It’s literally a jungle out there.
So what exactly is there to do in Misahualli?
In this part of the world you can spot wild animals, trek through humid jungle, gaze up at thousand-year-old trees, splash around in river water, and (best of all in my opinion) spend time with the locals who call the Ecuadorian Amazon their home.
Humans and animals alike.
In this article, I’ve written about thirteen of the best things to do in Misahualli, Ecuador. My best suggestion would be to bear all these activities in mind when you’re planning an Amazon tour, and make sure you ask tour operators if these activities are included in their tour packages.
1. Meet the Misahualli monkeys (from a distance)
Misahualli is an hour’s bus ride from Tena (cost: $1). Once we arrived in the town square, we had a few hours to waste before meeting Juan and heading into the jungle so decided to explore the town – and first up was meeting the local monkeys.
Aside from its proximity to the Amazon, Misahualli is probably most famous for the troop of Capuchin monkeys who casually terrorise the town’s main plaza. These guys swing from overhanging branches, chill on rooftops, clamber across the surfaces of parked cars and buses – and their constantly curious nature means plenty of thievery.
If you ask a local Misahualli resident about the monkeys, they’ll smile ruefully and shake their heads. Every day the town square echoes with shrieks from tourists as sunglasses and phones and water bottles are swiftly snatched by little clawed hands, only to disappear into the trees.
It’s hilarious to watch, but a little less amusing when it happens to you. While I was taking photos they grabbed a bag of crisps from the side pocket of my bag and started munching away before I could even blink. Securely stow away all your possessions, and never trust a monkey.
NB: It’s not advised to tease the monkeys, and don’t try to feed them either. They may look adorable but monkeys can turn aggressive easily, and will bite or scratch if you get too close or annoy them.
2. Visit the butterfly house in Misahualli
Just on the edge of Misahualli village and next door to the local school is the mariposario, or butterfly house. The owner, a local man named Pepe, built an enclosure in his back garden because he loves butterflies and wanted to ensure that the hundreds of species native to this part of Ecuador continue to thrive.
For a $2 entrance fee, Pepe showed us around his butterfly house, explaining how he collects butterfly eggs from his visits into the jungle, then cares for the caterpillars and pupae before finally releasing them into the enclosure.
There are little habitats showing the different stages of a butterfly’s life, and a range of different pupae/chrysalises – including some stunning gold-like chrysalises, which apparently help to ward off predators: reflecting sunlight gives the impression of a water droplet instead of a chrysalis).
(This fascinating video shows how a common crow caterpillar transforms into a golden chrysalis. Not for the squeamish!)
Pepe also collects all manner of different insect species from Misahualli plaza to prevent them from being eaten by the monkeys. They get stunned by the bright electric lights, allowing him to grab them and transport them home!
As we wandered through the enclosure, it was clear that Pepe was passionate about butterflies. He’s set up little feeding stations and planted all manner of flowers for the butterflies to drink nectar from, and everywhere I looked there were fluttering wings and flashes of shimmering colour.
3. Sail down the Rio Napo in a canoe
Once we’d met up with Juan and picked up some supplies for our stay in the jungle, he drove us in his jeep to the river’s edge. There we boarded a motorised canoe and set off into the Amazon.
Sailing down the river in a canoe is a wonderfully gentle way to experience life on the water. Despite being motorised, the boat is quiet enough to let you notice the sounds of the jungle around you: clicking insects, birds calling, the occasional splash of the waves against the canoe’s hull.
But be forewarned – while river-borne, your shoes may be stored in amongst a basket of green bananas, freshly harvested yuca and some giant orange cacao pods.
4. Go tubing and swimming in the Napo river
Tena is world-famous for its whitewater rafting opportunities – The World Rafting Championships were even held here in 2005 – and there’s lots of opportunities to go kayaking too.
Unfortunately we didn’t manage to sample either of these adventurous water sports, but we did spend a somewhat rainy afternoon tubing on the river, which was more enjoyable than the glum faces below would have you believe!
Alternatively, swimming in the river is just as enjoyable: the temperatures in the Amazon are humid and sticky, so it’s a relief to wash off in the cool water.
It’s particularly lovely at sunset – just watch out for the piranhas (which we didn’t see) and the water snakes (which we did. Cue plenty of screaming..!)
5. Explore the Amazon jungle on foot
Most people visit Misahualli or the neighbouring city of Tena because of their close proximity to the Amazon rainforest, and there are plenty of companies offering guided Amazon tours in both places. In fact, tour costs are kept relatively low here because of all the competition, making it a good choice if you’re on a budget.
On our wanders through the jungle with Juan as our guide, we began to understand what makes the Amazon so special. Pushing our way through dense jungle vegetation, dodging the creeping vines and taking care not to trip over exposed roots twisting along the ground, I felt like I was in a completely different world.
And then, out of nowhere, we would crest a hill and suddenly see the Napo river through an opening in the trees.
We were quickly sucked back into the jungle again, soaking up the green, until Juan stopped us.
“There, look!” He pointed up into the canopy, and we realised that the tangled roots we stood beside actually belonged to a giant tree purported to be a thousand years old.
6. Learn about medicinal jungle plants
The Amazon is filled with medicinal plants which many Ecuadorians swear by – and Juan was no exception. Throughout our walk he picked herbs, flowers and jungle leaves, explaining their significance to us before depositing them in his backpack.
When we passed a tree covered in hatch marks from a machete, Juan explained that this was the cruz caspi, a tree whose bark is stewed up and the resulting liquid drunk by local people to help them conceive.
Later, Juan heard one of our friends coughing and immediately stopped so he could give her some medicine. Deftly folding up a large leaf, Juan mixed together a thin paste of San Juanito tree bark and water, then poured the concoction up the nose of its cautious recipient. She coughed and spluttered but he said it would clear her cold right up!
You’ll often see images of indigenous tribes in the Amazon with bright red and orange designs on their face – but where does their face paint actually come from?
Juan showed us a handful of spiny red seeds. “This is our natural paint,” he told us, squeezing open the seed’s casing between his fingers to reveal a cluster of red powdery pods inside. These are seeds from the native achiote tree, also known as annatto, and they’re used for a multitude of purposes: hair dye, lipstick, even food colouring (it doesn’t add any flavour, but it gives a reddish hue).
Using a wooden stick to mix the seed pod’s contents, Juan began to draw delicate designs on my outstretched hand – and soon we were smudging our fingers into numerous achiote seeds and painting our faces.
8. Visit the AmaZOOnico Animal Rescue Center
Upriver is the AmaZOOnico Animal Rescue Center, an animal sanctuary run predominantly by volunteers. They follow a program of rescue, rehabilitation and release, with a goal to help every animal that comes through their doors to go back into the wild, and staff on duty during our visit assured us that all the animals had been rescued from previous owners who’d mistreated them.
Unfortunately, I’ve been to enough zoos on my travels and seen enough animals looking unhappy in their cages to find it unpleasant visiting a place like this. I didn’t know beforehand that we’d be visiting the Rescue Center, or I would have refused to go.
I’ve since researched the center online and sources maintain that the ethos is to rehabilitate all animals, but it’s still sad to see them behind bars – so if you don’t feel comfortable seeing animals in cages then I’d avoid visiting.
As you might expect, Ecuador’s Amazon is a fertile and lucrative place. But the most surprising thing I saw growing here was pineapple. Mainly because I had absolutely no idea that this fruit grows on a bush.
Over 116,000 tons of pineapple are grown in Ecuador each year, with plenty coming from the Amazon. We paid a visit to Juan’s neighbour, an elderly farmer called Don Jaime who runs a pineapple plantation and was even kind enough to give us a few pineapples for breakfast the next day.
10. Help to harvest the yuca plant
Yuca (or cassava) is an extremely common food in South America and is a staple of many Ecuadorian dishes: chopped up and added to soups, served as an alternative to potato, or ground up into flour and baked into things like pan de yuca, a deliciously dense little cheesy bun which I ate in abundance while living in Cuenca, Ecuador.
Juan took us to visit his family home, where we met his mother harvesting a crop of yuca. Although the guided tours bring in the bulk of their income, Juan’s family still farms plenty of different produce including yuca, mango, banana, cacao and plantain. They harvest at different points throughout the year and sell straight to the consumer at local markets.
Under a canopy at their wooden stilted house, Juan’s mother showed us how to make chocolate from roasted cacao beans. The first step was to grind them into a fine powder using a hand grinder, then she set them in a metal pan on top of the fire and added water.
What’s the reason for this? Well, Bolivia has a number of idiosyncrasies that have the ability to make or break a traveller’s experience here.
Once you get off the well-trodden gringo trail of La Paz, Sucre, Potosí and the Uyuni salt flats, it turns out that Bolivia isn’t very set up for tourism. And while I relish the challenge of navigating a non-touristy country, there are a myriad of barriers to surmount – mainly in terms of transport, money, food, culture, and the country’s unique method of giving advice.
So I thought a round-up of my experiences in Bolivia – and the ensuing lessons I’ve learned – was in order. This is absolutely not to dissuade people from visiting, as I really do love Bolivia. It’s more to provide an overview of what you can expect from a period of Bolivian travel.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
1. Bolivian transport can be tricky
The first thing most travellers will encounter in Bolivia is the transport system. Like most of South America, people get around the country via an extensive bus network – but experiences on these can be debatable.
In terms of the more short-term transport options in Bolivia, though, I spent most of my time in two different types: taxis and trufis.
Taking trufis and taxis in Bolivia
When I first arrived in La Paz, I was pretty nervous about catching the local buses. Known as trufis, these little minibuses throng the city’s streets and feature ticket sellers leaning out of the open doors shouting their destinations – information supported by a placard propped up in the windscreen.
The problem is that the drivers essentially make up their routes: if there’s a road block or too much traffic, they simply go another way. For a tourist, this is something of a difficulty when they barely know the name of the street their hostel is on.
The streets of La Paz look a lot more pleasant when you’re not squinting out of a trufi window.
Luckily, by the time I conquered my fear and boarded a trufi, I’d walked around enough of the city to know which direction we were speed-driving in. And if I ever lost my bearings, I’d simply shout, “Isquina por favor!” and jump out at the nearest corner. A rule I never would have learnt without experiencing it first – however worried I was about getting lost.
Bolivia is also the only country where I’ve been consistently required to know both the directions and eventual location of where I’m headed infinitely better than the taxi driver. There have been slews of drivers who look terrified when you flag them down – that is, if they stop at all. Numerous taxis have driven straight past me, or started their engines and speeded off as soon as they hear an address they’re not explicitly familiar with.
I stayed at an incredible hostel in Cochabamba which was marred solely by the fact that absolutely no taxis had any clue how to get there. My favourite journey back to Las Lilas hostel was with a driver who held an expression like a frightened rabbit for the entire ten minute ride. I had to continually coax him to take each new turning, and clambered out of the car exhausted.
Bolivian transport: the positives
There are a number of benefits to the way Bolivians travel, though. First off, Bolivian transport is cheap. Hence why I took taxis a lot of the time – something that’s never been a habit in other South American countries.
The scenery on the bus route is also pretty nice.
Secondly, the experience is usually pretty friendly. On every trufi ride, I realised that each passenger said “buen dia” or “buenas tardes” as they boarded, presumably to the rest of the bus – and I adopted the tactic very early on.
Third, and most appealing to me, is that being a taxi driver in Bolivia is often a full family operation. Many times I’ve caught taxis with the driver’s son or daughter, wife or girlfriend in the front seat – and once in Sucre, even met a new born baby, whose father clearly couldn’t bear to spend his days away from her. Despite the numerous strange drivers, there are also many who are really eager to chat away in Spanish about what you’re doing in Bolivia.
Sadly, though, these conversations were often tainted by a constant issue: paying the fare.
2. Dealing with money in Bolivia is stressful
Like many countries around the world, people in Bolivia have a problem with giving out their change. I understand why: one tourist pays with a big note, and suddenly all your spare coins disappear as a result.
But when the biggest Boliviano note in common circulation is 100Bs, equivalent to £10 or $14, it becomes rather frustrating to constantly argue with taxi drivers, tienda owners and restaurant waitresses, who consistently maintain that they don’t have change.
Hiding your cash in your shoe. No one will ever look there.
I often found myself pretending I didn’t have smaller denominations in these situations, just to be able to break a note. It’s not the nicest feeling, but sometimes ends up being totally necessary.
The pricing of products also carries its own set of difficulties; more often than not, I had the sneaking suspicion that sellers were simply making their prices up on the spot. Regardless of whether it’s due to obviously being a foreigner, things got problematic when I tried to barter with the clearly invented price, and was either bluntly shot down or laughed at.
Of course, the huge positive aspect to money in Bolivia is that pretty much everything is insanely cheap. Whether it’s a ten hour bus journey for £10, a three course meal with wine for £5 or an ensuite room in a hotel for £7, sometimes it’s necessary to put things into perspective a bit.
Ok, the service might not be the best, but you’re still saving a ton of cash in the process.
3. Eating in Bolivia is always an experience
Bolivians certainly know how they like their food. In a country that’s home to thousands of different varieties of potato, the locals supplement a starch-heavy diet with a nationwide obsession with sweet stuff: plastic cups of coloured gelatine topped with whipped cream are sold on every street corner, sugary empanadas are grasped in sticky hands, and Coca Cola is the drink of choice.
Luckily there’s also a ton of shopping opportunities in the local markets, so it’s not all about the sugar.
The weirder Bolivian food facts include drinking juice out of plastic bags (actually a rather sensible idea!) and most older Bolivians chewing on a ball of coca leaves to combat the effects of altitude – which results in a constant bulge in their cheek.
But by far the most incredible – and most typically Bolivian – foodie experience happened on my second visit to Isla del Sol, the night before I left the country entirely.
Tired out and starving from a full day of hiking around the island, we chose a small restaurant overlooking Lake Titicaca and ordered a pizza, topped with olives, peppers, and ham. A ten year old girl took our order, brought us two beers, and vanished into the kitchen. We were the only customers at this point.
After a forty minute wait and the disappearance of the sun below the horizon, we started to wonder where our food was. We looked to the ten year old, busy putting oven gloves on after opening the oven door, and she smiled and dipped her head at us. Another twenty minutes, and a pizza finally appeared – but missing the ham the description had stated we’d get. Obviously this really wasn’t an issue, but we asked anyway. “This was supposed to come with ham, right? Well, there isn’t any…”
We were halfway through the pizza when our ten year old waitress appeared at the table, bearing a small china plate with two square slices of prepackaged ham, clearly straight out of the fridge.
“Todo bien?” The girl said, clearly perplexed at why we were laughing. We’d been given the ham we’d wanted, after all – what else could be the matter?
Still hungry when the pizza had gone, we ordered a plate of spaghetti. By this point the restaurant was filled with people, and the pasta took another forty minutes to arrive. Yet when it did, the stuff was so crunchy and brittle that it clearly hadn’t met boiling water for longer than a few minutes. After two mouthfuls I took it back to the kitchen.
“No puedo comer eso – es demaciado fuerte.”
The teenage boy glanced at the poor ten year old. She took the plate away – and there was no more mention of pasta. Not even the question of whether I wanted a fresh plateful.
Bolivian food: the positives
Luckily, Bolivia’s food offerings have kept me happy more often than not. I’ve waxed lyrical before about my love for the South American menu del dia, and Bolivia is no different. While daily helpings of soup, rice, meat and platano can sometimes get old, there’s no doubt that this simple meal is a quick, cheap fix for being hungry.
Outside of the typical Bolivian lunch, there’s a number of chances to happen upon amazing eateries if you just go looking. Potosi boasted incredible hot chocolate; we indulged in cheese fondue twice in Copacabana; and in Sucre, I ate the best steak of my entire life at a churrasqueria not even mentioned in Lonely Planet or on Trip Advisor.
Most importantly, the attitude Bolivians have towards eating is ultimately communitarian, and it’s a lovely thing to see.
When someone passes your table in a restaurant, you’ll usually hear ‘buen provecho’ – the Spanish equivalent of ‘bon appetite’. There’s also nothing odd about sharing your table with strangers: a trait that I think many other cultures would benefit hugely from.
Indigenously dressed men and women are a common sight in all towns, villages and most big cities – many of whom shy away from photos because they think a camera will steal their souls. Young boys shine shoes in the middle of the street, their faces covered by balaclavas to conceal their identities.
Llama foetuses hang above market stalls, inviting people to bury them under the foundations of their houses for good luck.
These aspects of Bolivian life are things a foreigner simply can’t hope to understand. And Bolivians themselves have many behavioural eccentricities that often prove acutely stressful for a foreigner such as myself.
5. “Giving advice” actually means making things up
On Boxing Day in Copacabana, we wanted to hire a motorbike.
It was a great way to spend an afternoon, zipping along the lake’s coastline to a few scenic spots, and we’d questioned the elderly gentlemen renting out bikes a few days before. He’d given a good price for four hours of renting an automatic bike – “Si, of course, we definitely have automatics” – and things seemed set.
Except when we arrived, he wheeled out a tired, battered and bruised motorbike, and proceeded to explain that there were only four gears we needed to use.
“…so it’s not automatic,” I ventured.
“Si, si, it is! There is no clutch, so it’s automatic,” he said, grinning.
I tried again.
“No… if it has gears, it isn’t automatic. We asked for an automatic because we don’t know how to drive with gears!”
His teenage accomplice attempted a different tactic.
“This road is straight, it’s flat. It’s an automatic road,” he said, unsuccessfully evading eye contact with me.
Time and time again, these things kept happening in Bolivia. A stranger would confidently point me in the wrong direction to an address I asked about; a shop owner would tell me they didn’t stock produce which I could clearly see behind on the shelf.
But then again, some of Bolivia’s cultural crazinesses are what really makes the country special. Like real zebras helping you to cross the road.
And yet I still have a firm love for Bolivia
Talking to lots of travellers throughout Bolivia has matched my own opinions: this country is a challenge, certainly, but it’s also an utterly fascinating place.
So what’s my advice for travelling in Bolivia without letting these stresses get to you?
– Stick somewhere for longer than a few days. Find a homestay or an apartment and use it as a base to explore the country as a bit more of a local, instead of as a fast-moving tourist.
– Take Spanish classes so you can actually communicate with people and understand the Bolivian perspective on their country.
– Shop at local markets, and try to actually get under the skin of Bolivia.
Despite the stresses and the difficulties, there are so many positives: the awe inspiring landscapes and scenery, the budget-friendly prices, the fascinating culture, and the sense of adventure and possible challenge that comes with everything here.
So thank you, Bolivia!
Thanks for testing me to my limit, but simultaneously throwing me into the midst of an amazing array of totally unexpected experiences. South America would have been a lot less eventful if it wasn’t for you.
Have you ever travelled to Bolivia? What was the experience like for you?
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It’s a secret, almost casual thought. When I’m on the bus, I idly imagine someone hitting me from behind. There are invisible attackers waiting around corners. I die in plane crashes and earthquakes and house fires. I die in a myriad of situations that I cannot control.
And yet, I don’t have any problem with talking about death.
For me, the more unexpectedly positive side of dealing with death is that I find the subject a lot easier to talk openly about. In fact, it’s much more than that.
Talking about death is a release for me. It’s cathartic. Getting deep into a conversation about the serious stuff allows my torrent of mixed-up emotion to spill out, and it turns my grief into something shareable and communal.
Six months after my Mum’s death I found myself on an internet forum where people were discussing what books to read after the death of a loved one. Someone had commented saying their mum had died a week ago in a car crash. This girl (let’s call her Lauren) was a year older than me and was deep in the midst of trauma, shock, confusion, loneliness – you name it, she was feeling it. I hurriedly replied, and soon we were emailing regularly.
For the next year or so, Lauren and I traded death chat. Funerals, friends, sex, alcohol, drugs: no topics were off limits because we both innately understood that we had nobody else in our lives who’d faced what we were facing. Nobody else was going to ‘get it’ like we did.
During that same time, I’d been referred to on-campus counselling by my university. I remember sitting in a stiflingly hot room while an impassive therapist placed a box of tissues on the table between us and immediately started probing me for specific details about my grief. An hour later I left the session, tears streaming down my face on a Tuesday afternoon, and firmly decided I would never go back.
That disastrous encounter cemented my idea that therapy wasn’t something helpful for me – and yet speaking online to a girl I’d never met who lived in southern Texas was immediately supportive in a totally unexpected way.
Talking about death is a strange thing. For the recently bereaved, some people prefer professional help; others can only speak to family; still more cope best with support from strangers. For everyone else, death is a confusing, awkward and ultimately scary topic.
Many of us want to talk about death, but we don’t know how to actually do it.
So why is death such a taboo subject?
Back in the Victorian era, grief was a public activity. People had huge funerals, photos were taken with the deceased, and widows used to wear black for two years. It alerted those around them to the circumstances, and grieving people were treated more gently by friends and strangers alike as a result.
Nowadays, the way the English behave around death has completely changed. We’ve somehow made grief into a very private and personal experience, assuming that we need to ‘stay out of the way’ and ‘get on with it’ behind closed doors. What this actually does is cause a huge amount of isolation.
As a topic, we steadfastly ignore the concept of death so much that it seems we’re embarrassed by it. And when someone’s actually died, we have very little idea of how to behave around those people who are grieving.
Nobody ever told me what losing my parents would feel like. Nobody explained how shellshocked I would be; how confused and isolated and traumatised my life would suddenly look.
And nobody warned me that I might lose friends over it; that other people might find it hard to cope with my bereavement too.
When I went back to university a few weeks after my mum’s death, the reactions I encountered were extraordinary. One girl who lived in my shared student house simply didn’t speak to me for months and constantly avoided being in the same room as me – apparently because she ‘didn’t know what to say’. I felt like a leper.
A couple of years later, I told the guy I’d been casually dating for a few weeks about Mum’s death and he never spoke to me again. I felt like I’d done something wrong, even while I was still grieving for her loss.
People tend to forget that death is the most natural thing in the world.
Ten years on, I’m more understanding of these types of reactions. Death and grief are seriously scary topics, and if you’ve got an anxious personality then your thought processes can spiral – particularly if you haven’t directly experienced dealing with a death.
But ultimately this still doesn’t sit right with me. Because if there’s one thing we can be certain of, we are all going to die. Before that, we’ll almost certainly have to cope with the death of someone close to us.
So why aren’t we preparing ourselves earlier for the emotional impact of this grief? Why are we pretending it won’t hurt until we discover, too late, how much it does?
This is why it’s actually really important to talk about death.
From an emotional standpoint, it’s really important to acknowledge that death is a thing.
I know it’s a reminder of our own mortality, but addressing the idea of death also takes away the shock value from future scenarios. If you haven’t talked about death before, you could well be shocked by the physical changes in someone who’s dying; the conversations you or they might suddenly want to have as the end draws near; the feelings which could overwhelm you during the process.
Then there’s the purely logistical side of discussing death.
Over 50% of British people haven’t drawn up a will. They haven’t told anyone about where they’d like to be buried or if they’d prefer cremation or what songs they’d like playing at the funeral. They haven’t told anyone their online passwords or what happens to to their diaries or revealed the existence of all that hereditary jewellery hidden in the attic.
I was singularly responsible for dealing with my dad’s death, and even though he’d been amazing at telling me his bank details and where his will was located, I still knew nothing about the necessary official processes. Google was an absolute lifesaver. Within a fortnight I was registering the death, buying multiple death certificates, closing bank accounts, booking a funeral slot, finding a church, choosing a coffin and paying a funeral director what felt like an exorbitant amount of money.
What are the real, tangible ways we can talk about death?
– Talk to your friends. I’m very lucky that none of my closest friends shy away from discussing death with me (although to be fair they’ve had ten years of me bringing up the topic!). Some of them have also lost parents or people close to them, but that doesn’t make them automatically keen to talk; however, they know it’s important to me and they want to help. Factor in a bottle of red wine and it’s that much easier to open up.
– Talk to your family. It might be a sensitive topic but it’s highly recommended to at least have a preliminary conversation with your immediate family about death – at least so you know what their thoughts and feelings are.
– Talk to a therapist. If you’re grieving and think therapy won’t help, I totally understand – but please do remember it’s always an option for the future (i.e. admitting I needed therapy undoubtedly changed my life). Even if you’re not grieving, exploring your thoughts about death with a therapist can be a really healthy thing to do.
– Talk to an organisation. Charities like Samaritans (116 123, open 24 hours), Mind (0300 123 3393 or text 86463) and Marie Curie (0800 090 2309) have dedicated phone lines for you to call and discuss whatever’s on your mind.
– Go to a grief workshop. If you’ve suffered a bereavement you can usually find support from your local council – either one-to-one grief support sessions or groups. It’s worth enquiring at local hospices and hospitals for similar services too.
– Go to a Death Cafe. This fantastic concept is very simple: drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death. I’ve been to one session so far, where I drank tea with strangers in a Buddhist centre in south London – and I really enjoyed chatting about the actual concept of death, instead of the event being framed like a support group or counselling session. There’s a network of Death Cafes all over the world, so it’s highly likely you have a local branch.
– Go to a loss meetup. I recently discovered ‘Let’s Talk About Loss’, a UK-based organisation which runs meet ups for 18-30 year olds who’ve been bereaved. It was a surreal experience to sit with a group of people my age who’ve all lost their parents, friends, partners, siblings and to bond over the feelings we share. ‘Let’s Talk About Loss’ currently run meetups in London, Nottingham and Bristol but plan to extend that to more locations in the future.
– Find other people who’ve been bereaved. When I speak to people who’ve been through the same kinds of loss as I have? You can’t shut us up. We’re eagerly and excitedly comparing experiences, mutually commiserating over the emotional minefield we’ve both gone through.
Realising other people know exactly what I mean makes me feel so much less alone.
Talking about death doesn’t have to be scary. I promise.
Sometimes I feel strangely lucky that I’ve had to confront death so early on in life, because I know I’m able to cope. I’ve lived through watching both my parents die and I’ve come out the other side – battered and bruised but ultimately OK.
Death is one of the biggest things which can happen to us, but talking about it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. When it really comes down to it, talking about death just means allowing yourself permission to be sad and vulnerable about the complex emotions we all feel surrounding death.
For me, the scariest thing about death is that it highlights how easy it is to find yourself alone and isolated in your own feelings. But it’s important to remember that talking about death doesn’t make it come any closer to us. It just allows us to feel less scared, and more prepared.
I’m still learning how to be comfortable with the idea of my own death. But at least I’m very happy to discuss the topic in general. And that’s a good enough start.
Are you comfortable with talking about death? Would you like to see it become a less taboo subject?
NB: I’m considering the idea of writing an ebook about how to deal with grief and death – I’d love to know if this is something you’d be interested in reading!
An introduction to tejo, Colombia’s best sport you’ve never heard of.
Of all the drinking games you’ve played in your life, how many have involved gunpowder?
Over the years, Colombians have readily adopted a game called tejo as their national sport. It’s an alcohol-fuelled event which feels like a mix between bowling and shot-put, but with added firecrackers thrown in. I played a grand total of three games of tejo while I travelled through Colombia, and became increasingly enamoured of the sport each time.
So welcome to the world of Colombian tejo. Because why not spend your evenings throwing metal at explosives while drinking beer?!
What exactly does a tejo game look like?
Games of tejo are usually played in a barn or big warehouse, commonly called a ‘cancha de tejo‘ (a tejo court or arena). These canchas are dotted all over Colombia: they’re modest spaces when found in cities, and pretty basic in the more rural areas, with dirt floors, chickens wandering around, and often built on the land behind local bars.
All around the space, men sit and drink beer as their friends throw metal discs at boxes of clay. Occasionally there’ll be an explosion – and everyone cheers, because that means more points!
Confused? That’s understandable. Allow me to explain.
This is what a tejo board looks like.
The aim of the game is to throw a heavy metal disc, called a tejo, from about 20 metres away towards a tray of mud, which is called a cancha. There’s a metal ring called a bocin embedded into that mud; you can just about see it, as the bocin is half-buried under the surface.
And those little triangular paper packets dotted in the mud? They’re called mecha. They’re all touching the metal bocin, and they’re all filled with gunpowder.
So when the metal tejo successfully hits the metal bocin with a mecha in the middle of it… BANG!
Scoring points in a tejo game
Officially, there’s a point system when playing tejo (although plenty of games will descend into an explosive throwing party – and that’s just fine!).
For a maximum of 9 points, you’re aiming to land your tejo in the middle of the metal ring and to simultaneously explode a mecha. If you land inside the bocin with no explosions, you get 6 points, and any throw resulting in an exploding mecha scores you 3 points.
Tejo is played in rounds, so at the end of each round the person who’s landed closest to the bullseye also gets a single point. The first person to make it to 21 points wins the game!
But how on earth did this game start? Well, since you asked…
The history of tejo in Colombia
The game of tejo is native to Colombia and dates back to the 15th century. The internet has a few conflicting theories about its origins but most seem to agree that it’s based on an indigenous game from the Turmeque region of Colombia in Boyaca. However, the tendency for tejo players to drink copious amounts of beer while playing has lent it something of a seedy air, and tejo has historically been regarded as a lower-class game.
It’s only recently that the Colombian government have actively attempted to re-invent tejo’s reputation as a serious sport with a rich history. The game was declared Colombia’s national sport in 2000, and the Colombian Federation of Tejo has established tejo leagues and national championships which involve strict rules and uniformed players.
And yet the most typical and most revered form of tejo (particularly amongst foreign visitors) is still located in a dusty warehouse with the sound of clinking beer bottles adding to the explosions of gunpowder.
There’s a buzz around the game; plenty of moments in hammocks or around hostel tables amongst the beers when someone mentions tejo and a chorus of, “OHH it’s so fun!” erupts. Travellers always want to find the secret, relatively unknown activity or destination, and if you haven’t yet played tejo, you immediately get the sense that it’s a necessity – something to tick off your Colombian bucket list.
– Everyone is welcome to play tejo. A few google searches led me to various travellers wondering if they were allowed to play themselves, or whether it’s just a ‘foreigners-can-only-watch’ kind of game. Let me dispel the myth right here: tejo is a game open to anyone and everyone!
– That said, tejo is a group sport. It wouldn’t be much fun to play tejo on your own, so rally a group together before heading to a game (luckily most travellers I met in Colombia were always intrigued about playing tejo).
– Be happy to drink beer. Playing a game of tejo is usually free – as long as you buy a crate of beer for your group. Many of Colombia’s beer brands sponsor the tejo courts so you’ll see swathes of advertising and branding for Aguila, Costano, and Poker beers all over the place.
– Actually, prepare to drink A LOT of beer. It’s traditional in tejo to take a drink with every toss, and getting drunk is essentially part of the game. As long as some members of your group like drinking beer, you’ll be fine. However, the general rule is that groups arrive wanting to drink a lot, so if you’re nursing just one crate for a few hours then you may well be ousted from the cancha to make room for keener beer drinkers.
– Bring cash to pay for said beer. Tejo is not a credit card game. Most tejo courts are in poorer neighbourhoods, and the chance of a nearby ATM is minimal.
– Keep your wits about you, and don’t get hit in the head. The drunker you get (and those around you get), the less concerned you’ll be about heavy weights whizzing past your head. Within your drunken haze, try to remember they’re being thrown by equally drunk people and keep your head and body out of harm’s way as much as possible.
— Be prepared for surprises. What with the cheering, the explosions, and the sound of a heavy weight landing in various places, tejo can be something of a sensory overload. Don’t go if you scare easily at loud noises!
— Learn which arm you throw best with. A tejo weighs about 500 grams so it’s actually pretty heavy to lift and throw on a regular basis. Consider lifting some weights prior to your tejo match in order to properly prepare for the game.
– Remember to flatten down the clay. Sometimes the tejo makes large dents in the clay when it lands, and it can be difficult to extricate. Don’t be afraid to dig your hands in to retrieve your muddy tejo, but try to flatten down the clay afterwards to make a smooth surface for the next player. Occasionally there will be a kind Colombian who does this for you with a special smoothing tool. Be nice to him – he has an important job.
– You WILL get wet clay everywhere. The tejo can easily get covered in large lumps of clay, which is why there are usually burlap sacks around the area to wipe the tejo down with. Try to avoid wiping your hands on your clothes if you can help it. Sadly, playing tejo has the mysterious power to cover you in mud even if you’re particularly careful. Embrace the mud, and drink another beer. You can always shower later.
– Speaking Spanish will endear you to your fellow Colombian tejo players. It’s not a necessity to speak Spanish in order to play tejo, but if you’re in the middle of the countryside it would be useful. Plus being able to whoop and cheer in Spanish will make proceedings much more fun.
Ultimately the beer and the explosions will do the talking for you though.
Right, I understand the rules – where can I play tejo?
There are plenty of ‘canchas de tejo’ (tejo games) all over Colombia, but these are the three I tried:
How to play tejo in Palomino – beginner level
We’d seen this poster a few times while wandering along the highway close to Palomino on the Caribbean coast, and eventually I suggested checking out the ‘Mini-Tejo’ games they they advertised. The huge ‘Aguila Light’ beer logo was also a strong convincing element.
After following the signs, we found ourselves in an old Colombian man’s back garden. It was mid-afternoon, right in the midst of that soporific heat which warrants siesta time, so there was no-one else around to hear us hurling tejos at a couple of boxes filled with sticky grey clay and whooping with excitement whenever we hit gunpowder. This guy had something of an outdoor menagerie: clucking chickens, tiny kittens, and a collection of dogs trotting around, yet none of them seemed concerned by the sound of explosions.
A major plus point about playing rural ad-hoc tejo at someone’s house was that this enterprising Colombian had shrewdly remembered to install an outdoor fridge in close proximity to his cancha de tejo. We duly paid for a couple of beer bottles each, at his request, and then spent the next few hours taking turns to step cautiously through the chicken coop to a rickety outdoor toilet as the beers rushed through us.
Sadly I have no photos of this experience. I guess I was enjoying myself too much! We had no idea what we were doing and invented our own tejo rules because our host didn’t seem all that bothered – and I guess neither were we.
Result: A pretty easy and non-pressured first experience of tejo on the Colombian coast!
My second experience of tejo was much more traditional: played at night at a real cancha de tejos at the Los Amigos Club in Salento.
I was still amongst foreigners though.
At some point during my stay in Salento, this flyer somehow made its way into my possession. I can’t remember now whether I picked it up in the hostel or someone gave it to me in the streets of Salento but one sentence stood out above all else:
“Beer is mandatory for the game!”
With my coastal tejo experience firmly under my belt, I gathered up a keen group of backpackers at our hostel and together we headed for Los Amigos in the centre of town. I sauntered in confidently – and then was confronted by dozens of tipsy Colombian cowboys.
All my confidence ebbed away.
Luckily, Los Amigos wasn’t half as daunting as my mind first interpreted. Once the obligatory staring had occurred (not a huge amount, either, seeing as most of these men were drunk), we established ourselves at our designated cancha and attempted to play.
Of course, barely any of us knew what we were doing, which soon became overtly obvious to the Colombians around us. And if you know anything about Colombian hospitality, it won’t surprise you to learn that they stepped in to help.
The night dissolved into a combination of being directed by other players, listening to shouted Spanish advice from across the hall, and general merriment between gleeful cowboys, elderly farmers and excitable backpackers. Eventually we were playing just like the tejo pros. Or it felt like we were, at least.
Result: a new understanding that Colombians love to help foreigners with playing tejo!
My third and final attempt at tejo was one afternoon in Bogota. I’d been driving around the city while working on a filming project with my Colombian friends, and after a somewhat boozy lunch they suggested we head for a tejo game.
I was in the hands of experienced tejo players, and it showed. One of my friends went straight off to buy the requisite beer crate (it was about 3pm at this point) and I watched in awe as the others set up the gunpowder packets, stood back, and took aim.
No messing. We were in real tejo territory here. So much so that the camera was completely forgotten about in favour of our game.
It was one of my last days in Colombia – actually, one of my last in South America in general – and the afternoon quickly became a blur with every new Aguila beer I drank. My main memory from this final tejo match is of a lot of laughter, although I don’t know if that’s because I played particularly well, or particularly badly.
I’m going to pretend it was the former.
Result: a game of tejo can be taken seriously when played exclusively with Colombians. Tejo will, however, always involve getting drunk. And that’s the beauty of it.
Where can I find a tejo game in Colombia?
Tejo in Bogota:
There are quite a few places to play tejo in Bogota. Unfortunately I can’t find the address of my place, but here’s a selection of others:
The tejo courts are inside the Estadio Polideportivo Sur, a football stadium in Envigado which is a 15-30 minute drive away from Parque Lleras in El Poblado.
If you make an independent visit, walk through the main gate with the stadium on your left. Turn left once you’ve passed the playground. Keep walking straight with the stadium on your left and a football field on your right; once you’ve passed the field, you’ll see the tejo court.
Alternatively you can play tejo as part of an organised tour with Chris Cajoleas, who has lived in Medellin for over five years and is an official member of the Tejo League in Antioquia. He runs tours with Tejo in Medellin, which will take you and a group of fellow gunpowder enthusiasts to a cancha de tejo in Medellin. Day tours are Tuesday to Friday, and social nights are publicised on the group’s ‘Tejo in Medellin’ Facebook page.
Tejo in Salento:
As mentioned above, I had a great time playing at Los Amigos. It’s four blocks from the main square on Carrera 4, #3-32
Tejo in Cali:
The Club Social Los Amigos is on Calle 49 # 8a-23. It’s near the La Base Aerea (the Air Force base) and opens Tuesday to Saturday from 3:00 p.m.
NB: this is where Antony Bourdain filmed a segment for his TV show ‘Parts Unknown’. You can watch him play here:
Colombia: Anthony Bourdain tries a bar game that involves explosives (Parts Unknown) - YouTube
Have you ever played tejo in Colombia? Would you like to throw metal at gunpowder?
I was only supposed to spend a few weeks backpacking Colombia.
Instead, this magical country completely pulled me in – I ended up spending three months backpacking Colombia, and a further two months putting down roots to live in Medellin.
I’m fiercely defensive of Colombia. It still has a negative reputation, but that usually comes from people who’ve never visited. Before I chose to travel solo in Colombia in 2013 I was a little nervous – I’d heard all the horror stories of drug cartels and senseless violence – but once I arrived it was all forgotten.
Instead, I found myself surrounded by technicolour painted towns and surreal monoliths in the countryside; by beachside jungles and the rolling hills of coffee plantations; by giant hammocks in the cloud forest and street art painted onto crumbling yellow walls.
I was also surrounded by the most incredibly welcoming people – and it’s that generous spirit which I love most about Colombia. It’s been four years since I last set foot in Colombia, but it’s still hands down one of my favourite countries.
Colombia is where I learned to feel like a true traveller.
Because it’s in the northern part of South America and close to the equator, the temperature in Colombia doesn’t change much. Instead of traditional seasons there are two main climate periods of ‘dry season’ and ‘wet season’, and the weather is affected mainly by altitude – the coldest city is Bogota, where you’ll need a jacket most evenings.
When’s the best time of year to visit Colombia?
The Caribbean coast is always warm and tropical, and much of the north is the same. Colombia’s rainy wet season lasts from May to October, which means the later months of the year are Colombia’s low season. December to March is peak tourist season, when the entire country is sunny and dry (apart from the Amazon jungle!), so prices will be highest then too.
I started my Colombia travels in May on the Caribbean coast, and barely saw any rain – although once I reached Bogota in June I had an umbrella at the ready most days. I moved to Medellin for two months in mid March, and the weather was spring-like throughout.
What’s the local food in Colombia like?
I find Colombian cuisine completely delicious! It’s all made up of hearty stews, cheesy arepas, sharp and spicy salsas, and a lot of grilled meat – all washed down with an Aguila beer or a strong tinto coffee.
Some of my favourite typical Colombian food includes:
Arepas – a circular bread made of cornmeal. These are often served from street carts as a quick snack (either with a chunk of butter or filled with cheese), but they can be eaten at any time.
Bandejo Paisa – this plate of deliciousness is Colombia’s national dish. It’s a generous meal which includes red beans cooked with pork, rice, plantain, chicarron (like pork crackling), chorizo and a piece of steak, all topped with a fried egg, garnished with avocado and served with an arepa. You won’t be able to move for a few hours after eating this!
Ajiaco – a soupy stew with chunks of cassava or potato, shredded chicken and slices of avocado. There’s usually either a corn cob or loose corn in there too – and the best part is the topping of sour cream.
Huevos revueltos – these scrambled eggs with finely diced tomato and onion quickly became my go-to breakfast.
Chocolate completo – hot chocolate and cheese is a wonderfully bizarre Colombian tradition. Simply tear up a chunk of white cheese and push into a cup or bowl of hot chocolate where it starts to melt. Then fish it out with a fork (or a chunk of bread and butter if you really want to be Colombian about it!)
Can I drink the water in Colombia?
The tap water in all major cities is potable (Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Cartagena), but in smaller towns and the countryside it’s advisable to stick to either bottled water, or water you’ve boiled yourself.
What else can I drink in Colombia?
Cafe tinto – Colombia’s national obsession with coffee means there are steaming cups of cafe tinto on sale at every street corner. If you’re a true coffee fiend then head for Salento, Colombia’s coffee country, where you can tour the coffee plantations.
Aguapanela – a refreshing sugar cane juice with a squeeze of lime, which can be served hot or cold.
Fresh fruit juice – street stalls serve up fresh ‘jugo‘ throughout the country, and many are from local exotic fruits like lulo, guanabana, tomate de arbol, guayaba and my favourite Colombian fruit, granadilla. You can either have your juice made ‘con agua‘ (mixed with water), or ‘con leche‘ (mixed with milk).
Aguardiente – this aniseed-flavoured liquor, known as ‘guaro‘ for short, is Colombia’s firewater. The bottles with red caps are the original recipe; those with blue caps are sugar-free. Rumour has it that red tastes better, but leaves a worse hangover than blue. To be honest, I felt the hangover either way!
Do I need travel insurance in Colombia?
Yes, absolutely. You should have comprehensive travel insurance when backpacking Colombia – or anywhere, for that matter. I usually use World Nomads as it’s designed for adventurous travellers.
In brief: the Colombian conflict began in 1968 with rural uprisings from farmers and communists. Guerrilla groups evolved, most notably the FARC and the ELN, who fought continuously with right-wing paramilitary groups condoned by the government troops. Although much of the fighting occurred in the countryside, nobody in Colombia was safe: there was a constant threat of kidnappings and roadside bombs, children were snatched up and forced to fight ‘for the cause’, and there were thousands of casualties every day.
The civil war was further complicated by the increase of drug trafficking in the 1980s. As druglord Pablo Escobar rose to fame, many of the warring factions also participated in the drug trade, making more money to buy more weapons. The violence dramatically increased, and by the 1990s Colombia was one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
A huge percentage of Colombian people have been internally displaced over the past few decades, and many thousands have been killed. The government have attempted reconciliatory peace treaties a number of times, most recently and most successfully in 2016, but some violence still seems to continue.
Is Colombia safe to travel solo?
I felt safe while travelling solo in Colombia, and I met many solo female travellers who felt the same – but like most backpackers, I only visited the more tourist-friendly places. There’s no denying that parts of Colombia are still extremely dangerous – there are plenty of armed gangs vying for territory, and the drug trade still exists – but travellers are unlikely to visit these regions.
Petty crime and scams on tourists are still common – I caught a girl slipping her hand into my bag at a club in Medellin, and felt very thankful I’d left my passport in the hostel! Violence increases after dark, so keep your wits about you and don’t walk alone at night if you can help it.
– Dodgy taxi drivers. Hailing unlicensed cabs is often a bad idea in foreign countries – and in Colombia there are many stories of backpackers being driven to a cashpoint and being forced to empty their account. Use an app like Tappsi, Cabify or Uber, or ask the hostel/restaurant/bar to call a taxi for you. The most renowned spots in Colombia for this scam are La Candelaria in Bogota, and parts of Cali and Medellin.
– Being overcharged for a taxi ride. It’s not the worst scam at all, but you do feel taken advantage of (and I have personal experience of successfully thwarting this in Medellin!). Many Colombian taxis operate on a meter, but if you’re unaware of this a driver can simply ‘forget’ to turn the meter on and charge a flat fare. Sometimes the meter is also rigged to jump higher than it should – so research the typical cost of a journey before you make it, and stand your ground about the price!
– Drink spiking. Don’t accept drinks from strangers and keep a close eye on who has access to your drink.
– Hijacking overnight buses in the south of the country. There are gangs operating in the Colombian countryside who sometimes board buses and rob the passengers at gunpoint or knifepoint. Minimise this possibility by only riding the bus in daylight – and if you’re really worried, take flights instead.
The sex trade in Colombia
Prostitution in Colombia is legal in designated ‘tolerance zones’, so many male tourists will often find themselves being approached. Sex tourism is also pretty common (for some reason, this site gets a lot of blog traffic from websites dedicated to finding women in Medellin). It should go without saying that I don’t recommend perpetuating this particular Colombian industry: many of the country’s organised crime networks are responsible for sex trafficking and child prostitution, and take advantage of thousands of vulnerable displaced Colombians.
Books to read about Colombia
There’s a wealth of Colombia-focused literature and plenty of Colombian authors to check out. The guys at See Colombia Travel have an extensive reading list, but these are my favourite books about Colombia:
‘The Lucky Ones’ by Julianne Pachico. An interconnected series of short stories which are written from different perspectives of the civil war, including school children, upper-class Colombians, guerrilla fighters, prisoners and even a group of stoned rabbits! Pachico’s unsentimental approach makes this book a haunting illustration of what it’s like to grow up in a war.
‘Short Walks From Bogota’ by Tom Feiling. After writing an in-depth examination of the global cocaine trade in ‘The Candy Machine’, Feiling looks at how modern-day Colombia has been influenced by its turbulent past, woven through with history, politics, and personal understandings of the country from foreigners and locals alike.
Do I need to speak Spanish in Colombia?
Backpacking in Colombia is on the rise: it’s a hugely popular destination right now, and that means a heightened awareness for locals that if they speak English they’ll get more tourism. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn Spanish while you’re in Colombia (or before you go) – there’s so much to be gained from chatting in Spanish to cab drivers, stall holders, bar tenders and old ladies at bus stops. Plus Colombians are so stereotypically friendly that you’ll feel rude if you can’t be engaged in conversation!
There are plenty of Spanish schools in Colombia where you can take lessons. I spent a few weeks studying Spanish at the Nueva Lengua language school in Cartagena and Bogota and can highly recommend them.
There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer in Colombia. I volunteered at two projects while I was there:
The first was helping out at a church-run free lunch service for impoverished school children in the favelas of Bogota. This was part of my Spanish class program at Nueva Lengua, something I think is a really unique and valuable idea. Quite apart from being shown another side to Bogota, we were also thrust into practicing our stumbling Spanish with a group of young children – who talk much more quickly than adults!
My second volunteer project was at Angeles de Medellin, a small community centre set up by an American man named Marcos. I spent a few glorious afternoons in the barrio of Regalo de Dios, high up on the edge of Medellin, where I helped children with their English homework, did puzzles and played games – but I also gained a humbling insight into how much the civil war is still severely affecting the youngest generation of Colombians.
Other volunteering opportunities in Colombia include:
There’s no train system in Colombia so I mainly travelled overland via bus, but many backpackers opt for cheap domestic flights on budget airlines.
– Airlines: Avianca, LATAM and VivaColombia are the country’s main airlines, and if you book tickets strategically then flights can be cheaper than bus routes!
– Taxis: prevalent in most cities and easy to use – although as mentioned above, you should be wary of unlicensed drivers.
– Tuk tuk taxis: in smaller towns like Guatape and on the Caribbean coast, you’ll see tuk-tuk-style motor taxis operating as taxis.
– Colectivos: a generic term for a shared bus or van, which can usually hold around ten people (they’re often called ‘combis‘ in other parts of South America). These colectivos are privately run and don’t operate on a specific route: instead, the driver shouts out destinations and passengers board on that basis.
– Chiva buses: these brightly painted rustic buses were Colombia’s original public transport, but they’ve now been relegated to the rural Colombian countryside and as tourist buses for city tours at night (plus a few bottles of aguardiente).
– Coach-style buses: these are the option for long-distance bus journeys. As mentioned above, there can be dangers involved – I never had a problem, although I did pass through quite a few military checkpoints where soldiers casually hefted their guns around. Buses will usually stop for mealtimes at roadside restaurants, but it’s often when the driver is hungry instead of at the typical hours for breakfast/lunch/dinner. For longer bus journeys (more than a few hours), it’s best to buy your ticket ahead of time in case they sell out.
Bus routes and ticket prices in Colombia:
Ipiales to Pasto: 8,000 COP for a 1 hour 30 min journey. Frequent buses travel this route.
Pasto to Popayan: 30,000 COP for a 7 hour journey.
Popayan to Cali: 12,000 COP for a 3 hour journey. Various companies run buses every half hour on this route.
Cali to Bogota: 65,000 COP for a 12 hour journey.
Bogota to Medellin: 57,000 COP for a 12 hour journey. This route goes from one mountain range to another, so there’s plenty of hairpin bends. I opted for the overnight journey (along with a sleeping pill!)
Bogota to Santa Marta: 80,000 COP for a 16 hour journey.
Bogota to Cartagena: this route does exist but it’s very long – 128,000 COP for an 18 hour journey. Not recommended!
Cali to Medellin: 50,000 COP for a 9 hour journey.
Medellin to Guatape: 14,000 COP for a 2 hour journey. Mini buses depart every half hour from the North Bus Terminal.
Medellin to Jardin: 25,000 COP for a 3.5 hour journey. A dozen buses depart each day from Medellin’s Terminal del Sur (south terminal).
Medellin to Salento: 47,000 COP for a 6-8 hour journey (the route goes through the mountains so can take longer than expected!).
Medellin to Cartagena: 104,000 COP for a 12 hour journey. There are six buses a day.
Cartagena to Santa Marta: 25,000 COP for a 4 hour journey. There are four buses each day.
Santa Marta to Taganga: 1,400 COP for a 15 minute..